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Mik-A’pi Red Old Man
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It was in the valley of “It fell on them”1 Creek, near the mountains, that the Pik[)u]n’i were camped when Mik-a’pi went to war. It was far back, in the days of stone knives, long before the white people had come. This was the way it happened.
Early in the morning a band of buffalo were seen in the foot-hills of the mountains, and some hunters went out to get meat. Carefully they crawled along up the coulees and drew near to the herd; and, when they had come close to them, they began to shoot, and their arrows pierced many fat cows. But even while they were thus shooting, they were surprised by a war party of Snakes, and they began to run back toward the camp. There was one hunter, named Fox-eye, who was very brave. He called to the others to stop, saying: “They are many and we are few, but the Snakes are not brave. Let us stop and fight them.” But the other hunters would not listen. “We have no shields,” they said, “nor our war medicine. There are many of the enemy. Why should we foolishly die?” They hurried on to camp, but Fox-eye would not turn back. He drew his arrows from the quiver, and prepared to fight. But, even as he placed an arrow, a Snake had crawled up by his side, unseen. In the still air, the Piegan heard the sharp twang of a bow string, but, before he could turn his head, the long, fine-pointed arrow pierced him through and through. The bow and arrows dropped from his hands, he swayed, and then fell forward on the grass, dead. But now the warriors came pouring from the camp to aid him. Too late! The Snakes quickly scalped their fallen enemy, scattered up the mountain, and were lost to sight.
Now Fox-eye had two wives, and their father and mother and all their near relations were dead. All Fox-eye’s relatives, too, had long since gone to the Sand Hills2. So these poor widows had no one to avenge them, and they mourned deeply for the husband so suddenly taken from them. Through the long days they sat on a near hill and mourned, and their mourning was very sad.
There was a young warrior named Mik-a’pi. Every morning he was awakened by the crying of these poor widows, and through the day his heart was touched by their wailing. Even when he went to rest, their mournful cries reached him through the darkness, and he could not sleep. So he sent his mother to them. “Tell them,” he said, “that I wish to speak to them.” When they had entered, they sat close by the door-way, and covered their heads.
“Kyi!” said Mik-a’pi. “For days and nights I have heard your mourning, and I too have silently mourned. My heart has been very sad. Your husband was my near friend, and now he is dead and no relations are left to avenge him. So now, I say, I will take the load from your hearts. I will avenge him. I will go to war and take many scalps, and when I return, they shall be yours. You shall paint your faces black, and we will all rejoice that Fox-eye is avenged.”
When the people heard that Mik-a’pi was going to war, many warriors wished to join him, but he refused them; and when he had taken a medicine sweat, and got a medicine-pipe man to make medicine for him during his absence, he started from the camp one evening, just after sunset. It is only the foolish warrior who travels in the day; for other war parties may be out, or some camp-watcher sitting on a hill may see him from far off, and lay plans to destroy him. Mik-a’pi was not one of these. He was brave but cautious, and he had strong medicine. Some say that he was related to the ghosts, and that they helped him. Having now started to war against the Snakes, he traveled in hidden places, and at sunrise would climb a hill and look carefully in all directions, and during the long day would lie there, and watch, and take short sleeps.
Now, when Mik-a’pi had come to the Great Falls (of the Missouri), a heavy rain set in; and, seeing a hole in the rocks, he crawled in and lay down in the farther end to sleep. The rain did not cease, and when night came he could not travel because of the darkness and storm; so he lay down to sleep again. But soon he heard something coming into the cave toward him, and then he felt a hand laid on his breast, and he put out his hand and touched a person. Then Mik-a’pi put the palm of his hand on the person’s breast and jerked it to and fro, and then he touched the person with the point of his finger, which, in the sign language, means, “Who are you?”
The strange person then took Mik-a’pi’s hand, and made him feel of his own right hand. The thumb and all the fingers were closed except the forefinger, which was extended; and when Mik-a’pi touched it the person moved his hand forward with a zigzag motion, which means “Snake.” Then Mik-a’pi was glad. Here had come to him one of the tribe he was seeking. But he thought it best to wait for daylight before attacking him. So, when the Snake in signs asked him who he was, he replied, by making the sign for paddling a canoe, that he was a Pend d’Oreille, or River person. For he knew that the Snakes and the Pend d’Oreilles were at peace.
Then they both lay down to sleep, but Mik-a’pi did not sleep. Through the long night he watched for the first dim light, so that he might kill his enemy. The Snake slept soundly; and just at daybreak Mik-a’pi quietly strung his bow, fitted an arrow, and, taking aim, sent the thin shaft through his enemy’s heart. The Snake quivered, half rose up, and with a groan fell back dead. Then Mik-a’pi took his scalp and his bow and arrows, and also his bundle of moccasins; and as daylight had come, he went out of the cave and looked all about. No one was in sight. Probably the Snake, like himself, had gone alone to war. But, ever cautious, he traveled only a short distance, and waited for night before going on. The rain had ceased and the day was warm. He took a piece of dried meat and back fat from his pouch and ate them, and, after drinking from the river, he climbed up on a high rock wall and slept.
Now in his dream he fought with a strange people, and was wounded. He felt blood trickling from his wounds, and when he awoke, he knew that he had been warned to turn back. The signs also were bad. He saw an eagle rising with a snake, which dropped from its claws and escaped. The setting sun, too, was painted3, a sure warning to people that danger is near. But, in spite of all these things, Mik-a’pi determined to go on. He thought of the poor widows mourning and waiting for revenge. He thought of the glad welcome of the people, if he should return with many scalps; and he thought also of two young sisters, whom he wanted to marry. Surely, if he could return and bring the proofs of brave deeds, their parents would be glad to give them to him.
It was nearly night. The sun had already disappeared behind the sharp-pointed gray peaks. In the fading light the far-stretching prairie was turning dark. In a valley, sparsely timbered with quaking aspens and cotton-woods, stood a large camp. For a long distance up and down the river rose the smoke of many lodges. Seated on a little hill overlooking the valley, was a single person. With his robe drawn tightly around him, he sat there motionless, looking down on the prairie and valley below.
Slowly and silently something was crawling through the grass toward him. But he heard nothing. Still he gazed eastward, seeking to discover any enemy who might be approaching. Still the dark object crawled slowly onward. Now it was so close to him that it could almost touch him. The person thought he heard a sound, and started to turn round. Too late! Too late! A strong arm grasped him about the neck and covered his mouth. A long jagged knife was thrust into his breast again and again, and he died without a cry. Strange that in all that great camp no one should have seen him killed!
Still extended on the ground, the dark figure removed the scalp. Slowly he crawled back down the hill, and was lost in the gathering darkness. It was Mik-a’pi, and he had another Snake scalp tied to his belt. His heart was glad, yet he was not satisfied. Some nights had passed since the bad signs had warned him, yet he had succeeded. “One more,” he said. “One more scalp I must have, and then I will go back.” So he went far up on the mountain, and hid in some thick pines and slept. When daylight came, he could see smoke rise as the women started their fires. He also saw many people rush up on the hill, where the dead watcher lay. He was too far off to hear their angry shouts and mournful cries, but he sung to himself a song of war and was happy.
Once more the sun went to his lodge behind the mountains, and as darkness came Mik-a’pi slowly descended the mountain and approached the camp. This was the time of danger. Behind each bush, or hidden in a bunch of the tall rye grass, some person might be watching to warn the camp of an approaching enemy. Slowly and like a snake, he crawled around the outskirts of the camp, listening and looking. He heard a cough and saw a movement of a bush. There was a Snake. Could he kill him and yet escape? He was close to him now. So he sat and waited, considering how to act. For a long time he sat there waiting. The moon rose and traveled high in the sky. The Seven Persons4 slowly swung around, and pointed downward. It was the middle of the night. Then the person in the bush stood up and stretched out his arms and yawned, for he was tired of watching, and thought that no danger was near; but as he stood thus, an arrow pierced his breast. He gave a loud yell and tried to run, but another arrow struck him and he fell.
At the sound the warriors rushed forth from the lodges and the outskirts of the camp; but as they came, Mik-a’pi tore the scalp from his fallen enemy, and started to run toward the river. Close behind him followed the Snakes. Arrows whizzed about him. One pierced his arm. He plucked it out. Another struck his leg, and he fell. Then a great shout arose from the Snakes. Their enemy was down. Now they would be revenged for two lately taken lives. But where Mik-a’pi fell was the verge of a high rock wall; below rushed the deep river, and even as they shouted, he rolled from the wall, and disappeared in the dark water far below. In vain they searched the shores and bars. They did not find him.
Mik-a’pi had sunk deep in the water. The current was swift, and when at last he rose to the surface, he was far below his pursuers. The arrow in his leg pained him, and with difficulty he crawled out on a sand-bar. Luckily the arrow was lance-shaped instead of barbed, so he managed to draw it out. Near by on the bar was a dry pine log, lodged there by the high spring water. This he managed to roll into the stream; and, partly resting on it, he again drifted down with the current. All night he floated down the river, and when morning came he was far from the camp of the Snakes. Benumbed with cold and stiff from the arrow wounds, he was glad to crawl out on the bank, and lie down in the warm sunshine. Soon he slept.
The sun was already in the middle when he awoke. His wounds were swollen and painful; yet he hobbled on for a time, until the pain became so great he could go no further, and he sat down, tired and discouraged.
“True the signs,” he said. “How crazy I was to go against them! Useless now my bravery, for here I must stay and die. The widows will still mourn; and in their old age who will take care of my father and my mother? Pity me now, oh Sun! Help me, oh great Above Medicine Person! Look down on your wounded and suffering child. Help me to survive!”
What was that crackling in the brush near by? Was it the Snakes on his trail? Mik-a’pi strung his bow and drew out his arrows. No; it was not a Snake. It was a bear. There he stood, a big grizzly bear, looking down at the wounded man. “What does my brother here?” he said. “Why does he pray to survive?”
“Look at my leg,” said Mik-a’pi, “swollen and sore. Look at my wounded arm. I can hardly draw the bow. Far the home of my people, and my strength is gone. Surely here I must die, for I cannot travel and I have no food.”
“Now courage, my brother,” said the bear. “Now not faint heart, my brother, for I will help you, and you shall survive.”
When he had said this, he lifted Mik-a’pi and carried him to a place of thick mud; and here he took great handfuls5 of the mud and plastered the wounds, and he sung a medicine song while putting on the mud. Then he carried Mik-a’pi to a place where were many sarvis berries, and broke off great branches of the fruit, and gave them to him, saying, “Eat, my brother, eat!” and he broke off more branches, full of large ripe berries, for him; but already Mik-a’pi was satisfied and could eat no more. Then said the bear, “Lie down, now, on my back, and hold tight by my hair, and we will travel on.” And when Mik-a’pi had got on and was ready, he started off on a long swinging trot.
All through the night he traveled on without stopping. When morning came, they rested awhile, and ate more berries; and again the bear plastered his wounds with mud. In this way they traveled on, until, on the fourth day, they came close to the lodges of the Pik[)u]n’i; and the people saw them coming and wondered.
“Get off, my brother, get off,” said the bear. “There are your people. I must leave you.” And without another word, he turned and went off up the mountain.
All the people came out to meet the warrior, and they carried him to the lodge of his father. He untied the three scalps from his belt and gave them to the widows, saying: “You are revenged. I wipe away your tears.” And every one rejoiced. All his female relations went through the camp, shouting his name and singing, and every one prepared for the scalp dance.
First came the widows. Their faces were painted black, and they carried the scalps tied on poles. Then came the medicine men, with their medicine pipes unwrapped; then the bands of the I-kun-uh’-kah-tsi, all dressed in war costume; then came the old men; and last the women and children. They all sang the war song and danced. They went all through the village in single file, stopping here and there to dance, and Mik-a’pi sat outside the lodge, and saw all the people dance by him. He forgot his pain and was proud, and although he could not dance, he sang with them.
Soon they made the Medicine Lodge, and, first of all the warriors, Mik-a’pi was chosen to cut the raw-hide which binds the poles, and as he cut the strands, he counted the coups he had made. He told of the enemies he had killed, and all the people shouted his name and praised him. The father of those two young sisters gave them to him. He was glad to have such a son-in-law. Long lived Mik-a’pi. Of all the great chiefs who have lived and died, he was the greatest. He did many other great and daring things. It must be true, as the old men have said, that he was helped by the ghosts, for no one can do such things without help from those fearful and unknown persons.
1: Armells Creek in Northern Montana is called Et-tsis-ki-ots-op, “It fell on them.” A longtime ago a number of Blackfeet women were digging in a bank near this creek for the red clay which they use for paint, when the bank gave way and fell on them, burying and killing them.]
2: Sand Hills: the shadow land; place of ghosts; the Blackfoot future world.]
3: Sun dogs.]
4: The constellation of the Great Bear.]
5: The bear’s paws are called O-kits-iks, the term also for a person’s hands. The animal itself is regarded as almost human.]
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